ZigBee vs Z-Wave vs WiFi

May 6, 2013 home automation, internet, wifi, 1 Comments
Zigbee vs Z-wave vs WiFi

Wireless standards are murky ground for many buyers, leading them to worry over purchases: How do you know if a product will work with Wi-Fi? What about new home Wireless protocols like Z-Wave? And where does this ZigBee fit into the discussion? It’s a ZigBee vs Z-Wave vs WiFi conundrum! Which side do you fall on — and which side makes the most sense for everyone?

ZigBee vs Z-Wave vs WiFi

These three terms may be common in the home automation market, but they actually all refer to separate standards. While they cannot communicate with each other, each standard is used in different solutions:

  • Wi-Fi primarily targets Internet hubs and connections.
  • ZigBee is focused on home sensors and monitoring devices.
  • Z-Wave plays nice with generation home automation and home security.

To buy the right devices for the right wireless connections, you should understand how these standards work on their own, and how they relate to each other.

WiFi

To begin with the most well-known standard of all, WiFi has its origins back in the first days of cell phones and wireless experimentation in the 1980s. As the Internet grew, industry standards like Ethernet came into being, which encouraged developers to adopt a similar standard for radio frequency communication as well. Boosted by big brands like Apple, WiFi soon rose to become the go-to solution for short-range Wireless Internet.

Of course, technology as old as Wi-Fi evolves through many iterations. The latest version of the wireless standard still operates on using the 802.11 series of standards, but is now a complex beast with “a,” “g,” and “n” variants, among others. The “n” versions of WiFi are especially useful for homeowners because this version is designed to work with all the latest technology.

Wi-Fi is also unique in how it operates on both the common 2.4 GHz frequency and the lesser-used and potentially faster 5 GHz frequency in dual band versions. With a range between 100 and 300 feet on average and complex, hub-based network construction, WiFi is the ideal solution for all wireless Internet network and wireless broadband access points. When it comes to communication beyond these Internet connections, other standards start to show up.

ZigBee

ZigBee is a far simpler wireless standard first developed in the 1990s and completed in the early 2000s. While Wi-Fi spread via Internet access and laptop use, ZigBee was adopted by a far smaller market: Home device communication. With its low power and memory requirements, ZigBee was well-suited for devices that cannot field WiFi, such as home sensors and remote control applications.

Technically, ZigBee uses the 802.15.4 radio standard for direction communication based on very simple master/slave network nodes (typically star or mesh designs). In North America, it uses the 900-928 frequency range, usually 915 MHz in the United States. There is overlap with both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, which can lead to interference when many wireless connections are present. The standard has a variable range, sometimes dwindling to Bluetooth levels of 30 feet at the most, and sometimes rising to WiFi ranges based on the device in question.

In the ZigBee vs Z-Wave vs WiFi discussion, ZigBee has two advantages that make it popular in the monitoring market, even today. First, it has been widely exchanged and used by many device manufacturers for years, so many brands are familiar with it and the “profile” system it uses to bring in new devices. Second, the ZigBee standard has such low power requirements that it can work in a broad number of products, such as smart energy, health care, remote controls, industrial equipment monitoring, and home automation.

Z-Wave

Compared to WiFi and ZigBee, Z-Wave is a new kid on the block, born in the late 2000s, thanks to work by several new tech companies creating a standard for an even more limited set of products. Even more recently, it was adopted as a new G.9959 standard by the International Telecommunications Union. At first glance, ZigBee and Z-Wave appear very similar. It uses a close-by 908.42 MHz in the United States, has a very small range down at Bluetooth levels, and is designed for monitoring and automation functions.

However, there are several key differences. Z-Wave has ZM3102, ZM4101, and ZM4102 modules, which can be built into other products – any other products. Manufacturers are required to use this module framework, which can make Z-Wave the least flexible standard when designing products. However, Z-Wave also supports full interoperability (the same protocol applies to every application), allowing any type of device to communicate with any other type of device using the right Z-Wave frequencies. This actually makes the technology more flexible on the user’s end.

Z-Wave focuses primarily on the home security (ADT uses the standard) and home automation services for short-range remote control of functions such as lighting or entertainment systems.

We hope this helps you understand the differences in these three standards, and the ZigBee vs Z-Wave vs WiFi discussion is a little clearer.


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Tyler Lacoma

Tyler Lacoma is a writer based in Bend, Oregon. When not outdoors, he writes about the latest tech trends and the most interesting business news he can find.

One Comment

  • Mark Walters

    Thank you for this informative posting and while it is generally correct there are several inaccuracies and misconceptions that are misleading to the reader. One example is the statement that ZigBee uses 915MHz in the US. ZigBee can and does use any 802.15.4 approved radio and that can be either 915MHz or 2.4GHz. Confusing but, virtually all home control products use the 2.4GHz band and do in fact interact with Bluetooth and WiFi, sometimes in non-desirable ways.

    Yes it is true that Z-Wave plays nice with home automation and home security that is its primary market focus. Z-Wave has over 85% market share in this market segment. Z-Wave is also very successful worldwide in the Sensor and Monitoring devices market.

    The main challenge with ZigBee is that the standard allows “custom and proprietary” profiles to be used and hence most, > 90%, of the ZigBee products that are available are proprietary implementations and hence lock the consumer into a single vendor solution. Z-Wave takes a different approach and does not allow custom or proprietary profiles. This insures multi-vendor interoperability and protects the consumer from being locked into single vendor solutions.

    Z-Wave and ZigBee excel at providing large area coverage while using low power. This is important for battery powered devices like door locks that must live for years on a single set of batteries. WiFi can’t do this. WiFi has the bandwidth to transfer large files, video and audio, Z-Wave and ZigBee can’t do this. You can see that any complete solution will use a combination of technologies to meet all of its wireless communication requirements.

    To learn more please visit http://www.z-wavealliance.org and sign up for our free newsletter.

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